Are Football Thugs Extinct?

‘Serious sport’, writes George Orwell  in The Sporting Spirit (1945)’…is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence’. Although this essay of Orwell’s was first published in the denouement of the Second World War, his cynical outlook on competitive sport and its environment, particularly among some football fans, can still be regarded today as a valid observation. Football hooliganism emerged as a societal issue in recent English history during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Fans often fought before and after fixtures, equipped with any possible afflictive instrument in order to quash and conquer opposing fans: bottles, knives, iron bars, razors – even concrete slabs. Bitter, though relatively harmless, rivalries that have always existed between football clubs (and always will do) subsequently erupted throughout this period, resulting in English hooligans becoming increasingly disruptive. On May 29th 1985, for instance, in the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death – an event that led to the banishment of all English clubs from all European competitions until 1990 (with Liverpool being banned for an additional year).

Organised, mettlesome ‘firms’ of English football clubs (such as Manchester United’s ‘Red Army’ or Tottenham Hotspur’s ‘Yid Army’) were the advocates of this hooliganism. For some, the throng of violence on match-days became a drug: ‘I go to a match for one reason only – the aggro’, says ‘Frank’, a 26 year-old lorry driver and self-confessed football hooligan from the ‘Red Army’. ‘It’s an obsession’, he explains, ‘I can’t give it up. I get so much pleasure when I’m having aggro that I nearly wet my pants’. With this insatiable appetite for violence, hard-core hooligans such as ‘Frank’ can be considered by those not involved in their unusual communities to be fanatics – the origin, ironically, of the term ‘fan’. Due to the extensive police effort over the past twenty years to prevent football hooliganism, though, club firms are not so wide-spread today as they were three or four decades ago. Some, however, still exist, feeding off that uncontrollable urge for violence: ‘it’s just like being a crack-head or an alcoholic’, says ‘John’, a current member of Coventry City’s firm (‘The Legion’); ‘you’re addicted to it’. One senior official at one of London’s most prominent football clubs verified the existence of football hooliganism in modern society when he told The Observer in 2010: ‘If anyone thinks it has gone away they are naïve. The Internet provides an easy way to arrange meetings. This is gang violence that attaches itself to sport’. London, indeed, has witnessed over the past decade two serious incidents of football hooliganism between rival clubs: after Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur drew 3 – 3 in the quarter-finals of the F.A. Cup on 11th March 2007, a ‘running battle’ (Metro) broke out between the clubs’ fans; at least ten people were stabbed. Before the second round Carling Cup tie between West Ham United and Millwall on August 25th 2009, a man, also, was stabbed as West Ham United’s ‘Inter City Firm’ and Millwall’s ‘Bushwackers’ renewed perhaps the most vicious rivalry in English football, thereby demonstrating how football clubs still provide a stage for hooliganism.

In the first place, though, why are so many men (mostly between the ages of twenty to thirty) attracted to football hooliganism? Anthony King, Professor of Sociology at University of Exeter, offers one possible explanation, identifying football’s male-dominated environment as an opportunity to form and define one’s sense of masculinity: ‘Through the support of a football team’, he argues, ‘the male fan affirms his status as a man (in the eyes of his peers and himself) and also articulates the nature of that manhood’. On the matter of why football hooligans readily turn to violence, sociologists Eric Dunning, Patrick Murphy and John Williams recognise mob-mentality to be a significant factor: ‘at a football match…(hooligans) are able to act in ways that are frowned upon by officialdom and much of respectable society’, they argue. ‘The game, too, can generate high levels of excitement and the focus of this excitement is a contest…between the male representatives of both communities’. The offensive chants fired towards opposing fans and violence used against them are thus attempts to subjugate the other side in mock-battle, an argument supported via the fact that football firms ‘march’ to matches. These hooligans – as Dunning, Murphy and Williams suggest – are usually men that are (or have been) ‘discriminated against’ in work and school environments; they often lack a sense of identity and, therefore, though they probably would not admit it themselves, confidence in terms of their social standing in wider society, too. Among football hooliganism’s inner circles, however, these men can climb up from the bottom of a hierarchal structure to be revered by the fellow members of their community. By using violence as the primary means of achieving this status, though, the rise up the ranks in a hooligan firm is ultimately a destructive process.

Published in The Prisma

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